The third of ten children born to John and Maria Bowles (seven brothers and three sisters), Charles greets the world in 1829 in Norfolk, England. He is only two, when his parents and family immigrate to Jefferson County, New York, where a farm has been purchased. A young man in 1849, Charles and his brothers David and James catch gold fever and make the long journey out to California to become prospectors on the North Folk of the American River near Sacramento. And like so many others, they find only grief ... giving up in 1852, but trying again in that same year with a trio of Bowles' comprised of Charles, David again, and on the second time, brother Robert ... and things go worse, with no gold found again, and brothers David and Robert dying shortly after their arrival. By 1854, Charles is back east, putting down roots in Decatur, Illinois ... where the future outlaw marries Mary Elizabeth Johnson and the couple have four children.
Gold Rush Announcement
With the American Civil War raging, in 1862, Bowles enlists as a private in Company B of the 116th Illinois Regiment, a unit that will be part of the Union Army of the Tennessee. He proves to be a good soldier, and within a year he has been promoted to first sergeant and will end the war as a first lieutenant ... seriously wounded in the stomach during the Vicksburg campaign, Bowles recovers from the wound and is back with the unit for the capture of Atlanta, Sherman's March to the Sea, and participates in the two-day parade through Washington D.C. of the victorious Union armies at the war's end. Mustered out of the army, he returns to Illinois and his family, but with his gold fever really never abated, by 1867 he is in the West again, searching for a mother lode of riches in Idaho and Montana ... and thinking he has found it, he vows revenge when necessary water to the site is cutoff by a group of men associated with Wells Fargo that take over the mine when Bowles is chased from the site (documented in a letter he writes his wife, the last time she will hear from him until his arrest in 1883) ... and thus, he has his excuse for becoming a criminal.
Vicksburg - 1863
The Grand Review
On 7/26/1875, the Black Bart robberies begin when wearing a long, soiled duster over his clothing, a flour sack with cut-out holes for the eyes, and carrying a double-barrel 12 gauge shotgun, Bowles steps out from behind a rock and calls out to Wells Fargo stagecoach driver, John Shine, "Please throw down the box," and then yells, "If he dares shoot, give him a solid volley boys." Looking around, Shine sees rifles pointed his way from behind boulders surrounding the area, and complies (they are actually sticks the outlaw has set up to dupe the stagecoach into easier submission than just his gun alone). When one of the women travelers (women, children, and men ... there are ten people crammed in the stage when it makes its unscheduled stop) on the coach throws her purse out in a panic, Bowles returns it to her, stating, "Madam, I do not wish your money. In that respect, I honor only the good office of Wells Fargo." Strong box opened with a hatchet, the bandit makes a profit of $394 on his first caper, and the pattern is set for over a decade of stage coaches belonging to Wells Fargo being robbed ... all by a masked figure holding a shotgun (in none of the robberies that follow is the shotgun ever discharged, even when people are shooting at Bowles) that is well spoken, never robs the passengers of personal items and treats all females he encounters on jobs with great respect.
Black Bart In Action
From 1875 to November 3, 1883, Black Bart will rob 28 stage coaches in a variety of locations, taking thousands of dollars from Wells Fargo moving in northern California and Oregon ... the Sonora to Milton stage, the North San Juan to Marysville stage (another rifle stick robbery), the Point Arena to Duncan's Mill stage, the Quincy to Oroville stage, a Mendocino County stage, the Covelo to Ukiah stage, the La Porte to Oroville stage, the Roseburg to Redding stage, the Alturas to Redding stage, the Point Arena to Duncan's Mill stage again, the Weaverville to Redding stage, the Roseburg to Yreka stage, the same stage when it returns to Oregon for Yreka (a route traveled by President Rutherford B. Hayes and General Sherman only three days before), the Redding to Roseburg stage, the Roseburg to Yreka stage again, the Yreka to Redding stage, the Lakeview to Redding stage, a stage in Yuba County, the North San Juan to Smartsville stage, the Ukiah to Cloverdale stage, the Little Lake to Ukiah stage, the La Porte to Oroville stage again, the Yreka to Redding stage again, the Lakeport to Cloverdale stage, the Lakeport to Cloverdale stage again, and the Jackson to Ione stage.
Typical Wells Fargo Stage
Little evidence is ever left behind ... escaping one of his jobs, Bowles stops at a farm for a meal and the teenager who serves him is later able to give authorities a description of a blue-eyed man in his 50s with a heavy white mustache, running from gunfire, his derby hat comes off his head, and twice, in 1877 and in 1878, he leaves behind poems in which he names himself Black Bart (from a name he enjoys in a favorite dime store novel published in the Sacramento Union called "The Case of Summerfield"): 1877 - "I've labored long and hard for bread, For honor and for riches, But on my corns too long you've tread, You fine-haired sons of bitches." 1878 - "Here I lay me down to sleep, To wait the coming morrow, Perhaps success, perhaps defeat, And everlasting sorrow, Let come what will, I'll try it on, My condition can't be worse; And if there's money in that box, 'Tis munny in my purse."
For twenty-seven robberies, Bowles is unsuspected, using the loot to invest in a number of businesses, wearing fancy clothes, and dining and staying at only the finest restaurants and hotels in Sacramento and San Francisco. The authorities finally catch a break when Bowles decides to once more rob a stage as it slows going up Funk Hill, the site of his very first robbery. Stopping the stage near the crest of the hill on 11/3/1883, Bowles is unaware that the driver, Reason McConnell, has picked up 19-year-old Jimmy Rolleri after using the Reynolds Ferry (Rolleri's father runs the ferry) ... and Rolleri is carrying a hunting rifle and ammunition. Deciding to do some hunting on the fringes of the hill and meet the stage when it comes down the other side, Rolleri is surprised when the stage doesn't appear, and begins climbing the hill. Just below the crest Rolleri discovers McConnell and the horses from the stage, where the driver tells Rolleri that Black Bart is back in action. Moving over the summit, they see Bowles stepping from the coach, where he has been tolling to remove the strong box bolted to the floor of the stage ... instantly, McConnell grabs the rifle from Rolleri and begins firing ... but when both shots miss, Rolleri takes his weapon back and sends two more shots Black Bart's way as he vanishes into a nearby thicket. Shot in the hand by Rolleri, Bowles drops a packet of mail, runs for a quarter of a mile, then stops, wraps a handkerchief around his wounded hand, stuffs a sack of gold found in the box in a rotten log (while keeping $500 in gold coins), hides his shotgun in hollow tree and flees, leaving behind a pair of eyeglasses, some food, and a handkerchief bearing the laundry mark, F.X.O.7 ... a marking that proves to be Bowles' undoing.
Funk Hill Robbery Site
Recognizing the significance of the clue left behind, Wells Fargo Detective James B. Hume and Sheriff Henry Morse of Alameda County track the laundry mark to San Francisco and begin checking cleaning establishments for a match. Bingo after a week of searching ... on the 90th laundry visited, the Ferguson & Bigg's California Laundry, they find the mark they are looking for, and the owner of the shop identifies the person to which the handkerchief belongs to as being mining engineer C.E. Bolton (a Bowles alias), who lives in a nearby boarding house. Suspect identified, the men go to the boarding house and discover Bolton matches the description of the robber and has a wounded hand. Pretending to be interested in Bolton's mining experiences, the men walk Bowles to the nearby Wells Fargo office for a conversation about areas in northern California that look good for prospecting gold, and then once inside, confront Bowles about the robbery and have him arrested.
Culprit caught (at first, Bowles will claim he is actually someone named T. Z. Spaulding), because of a lack of evidence and the years that have passed, Wells Fargo decides to just prosecute Bowles on the most recent of his robberies. Found guilty, Bowles is sentenced to six years behind bars ... but because of his good behavior while at San Quentin prison, only serves four and is released in January of 1888, visibly aged, his eyesight beginning to fail and deaf in one ear. Interviewed by reporters upon his release, Bowles states, "I'm through with crime." And perhaps he was, but no one will ever know for sure because the next month, Bowles leaves the Nevada House he has been staying in, goes to Visalia, checks into the Visalia House hotel, and then vanishes (New York City, Montana, and Nevada are all said by way of never proved rumors to be his final resting place) ... though he has been secretly tailed from San Quentin to Visalia by Wells Fargo detectives, leaving behind, the legend of Black Bart.
San Quentin - 1870s
Black Bart & Bowles - True West Magazine